The Taking of Pelham 123 – Review

Perfectly acceptable entertainment, nothing more

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Director: Tony Scott
Notable Cast:
John Travolta, Denzel Washington, James Gandolfini, John Turturro, Luis Guzman

It’s interesting to see how some films get reshaped in the effort of the remake. Infernal Affairs went from a modest action film in a crime setting in to becoming an epic crime film with The Departed. Ocean’s Eleven transformed from a Rat Pack feature to a George Clooney/Brad Pitt vehicle. And The Taking of Pelham One Two Three turned from a thriller featuring gangsters with conflicting motivations to The Taking of Pelham 123, a thriller involving protagonists with differing motivations.

What starts as an ordinary day for the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority turns into something extraordinary for dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington). Riding a desk after being suspected of bribery, he’s the man who takes the call when the Pelham train gets hijacked by a man calling himself Ryder (John Travolta) and three associates (Luis Guzman, Victor Gojcaj and Robert Vataj). Demanding $10 million in exchange for the 19 prisoners, Garber isn’t the only one dealing with the situation. There’s Lt. Camonetti (John Turturro), the police hostage negotiator who doesn’t have a fondness for Garber, and The Mayor (James Gandolfini), a Rudy Guiliani type counting the days until he leaves office.

It’s interesting the direction Tony Scott takes the film; the first was about the tension between criminals. This one is about tension between the men trying to negotiate a safe release of the hostages. And it’s an interesting tension between the three made better by having three great actors in the parts. This is a genre film but has better performances than one would think; it’s interesting to see the chemistry the three have. Washington in particular stands out. As one of the handful of men one could call the best living actor, Washington stands out by melting into the background as the average city employee. Everything that usually stands out about Washington is minimized; if he wasn’t the focus of the story it’d be hard to notice he’s there. It’s a chameleon performance that usually isn’t seen in this sort of film.

And for the first two thirds of the film it’s a first rate thriller. Scott keeps the atmosphere tight and intense, giving us an interesting situation. It’s not until the film’s final act that Scott manages to find himself in a bad position. Once it gets to the point where it has to become a big, loud action film instead of a smaller thriller the film suffers. Up until that point, Tony Scott and all his usual visual flair is making a great thriller about two men trying to play a chess match with dangerous ramifications. Once Washington and Travolta end up in cookie cutter roles as action hero and evil villain respectively the film loses a lot of steam and the requisite ending feels a little flat.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was never a massive hit in the 1970s and had already been remade in 1998 with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio, so it’s not surprising to see it remade again with stars with the pedigree of Washington and Travolta. It’s just not a great film, and barely a good one at that.


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